Why it’s hard to make friends with Parisians
During my very first week at work in Paris, I was lunching with colleagues when one of them posed an interesting question:
“So, we hear that in Munich you were friends with your colleagues…”
This was certainly not a dirty secret, so I quickly confirmed.
“Absolutely! I made heaps of really great friends at work in Munich who I’m pretty sure will be friends for life!” (note the exclamatory enthusiasm in my quotation.. I was one week in, people, still some time away from becoming completely jaded).
“Just so you know,” replied the colleague, “we don’t do that here in France.”
While I initially interpreted this as thinly-veiled hostility (my internal monologue went roughly along the lines of “what the fuck sort of decision have I made in moving to France?”), it turned out to be a practical and sage forewarning. She was totally right.
I am a fairly friendly and open person who generally doesn’t find it hard to establish an initial rapport with people (genre instant BFFs with the supermarket check-out chick). But in my experience, trying to make friends with Parisians has made me feel like the social equivalent of Allison in The Breakfast Club (you know - the one who eats a sugar sandwich?).
They don’t make friends at work
Tout d’abord, let’s take a second to properly tackle my colleague’s assertion from paragraph 5: French people do not make friends at work. OK, so this a sweeping statement. Of course there are exceptions, and of course it also depends on the size of the company. But bref, don’t expect to get invited to Friday night drinks when you work in France. Don’t even expect to be friends on Facebook. It’s not gonna happen.
French people like to keep a controlled facade, a sort of separated professional existence, at work. Sure, people are very friendly to each other; they lunch together; but people don’t really talk about what they do outside of work, aside from which movie they saw on the weekend, or where they went on vacation. And when friendships do somehow mutate from the traditional working relationship, it becomes some sort of sordid secret, which needs to be hidden from other colleagues at all costs.
This tendency is all the more hilarious to me as this is a country where it is basically impossible to be fired. In Australia, you’re not real colleagues until you’ve gone out and got shit-faced together, and afterwards you’ll totally post some shit-faced selfies on Facebook for your other colleagues (who are your Facebook friends) to see #workdrinks. If it were impossible for us to get fired I can only imagine what sort of pandemonium would ensue.
Parisians already have their friends
Here’s the thing about Parisians: they make friends in high school and university, and then they keep them for the rest of their life. The. rest. of. their. life. Can you imagine? I don’t know about you, but if I was still hanging out with the same kids from high school, I would probably have already blown my brains out. I mean, I have kept the odd friend from those days (great people, who I hope to keep in my life forever). But generally speaking, you tend to become less of a dick as you get older, and therefore you find yourself hanging out with different people over time (who don’t know anything about your crush on Brenton Douglas which was bordering on stalking, or about the Friday night you ended up in a police station on Flinders Lane when you were supposed to be going to the movies).
But not Parisians. To be fair, from what I’m told, Parisians are born fully-evolved social beings, thoroughly prepped on appropriate topics for dinner conversation, the right wine to pair with the Reblochon cheese they just bought, as well as the full week’s theatre schedule for their arrondissement. They have therefore had the perfect social circle since birth - so why change anything?
They aren’t so interested in other cultures
Not only do Parisians already have their own friendships circles, they already have their own topics of conversation.
I don’t know about you, but when someone brings a new friend along to drinks, I would generally make an effort to ask them some questions to find out a little more about them. If they were from another country, and if they were making an effort to speak my language, I would probably hound them with questions the entire night to the point where they would tell the friend who brought them that they were busy for the rest of the year.
In Paris, in terms of conversation, it’s every man for himself. You’re lucky if you get asked how you like Paris (be careful, it’s a trick question!). Afterwards, it’s up to you to insert yourself in the conversation. And good luck, as these guys are going to be talking about that night out last weekend, their mutual friend’s second cousin who just had a baby, or that vacation they went on to Greece three years ago.
And this is a best-case scenario. I once made the mistake of going to a dinner party with French people (most of whom I didn’t know) on the eve of the Presidential elections. The opening question thrown at me was “Who would you vote for if you were able to?”. I swear, one day I’m going to rock up to a dinner party and someone will ask me: “So, what is your favourite sexual position?”.
Non-French speakers need not apply
Oh, and did I mention that all of this is conducted in French?? Yeah, yeah, I know - it’s fair enough. But it does make everything that little bit more complicated. And Parisians don’t do much to make it easy for you! Is it just me, or does every mispronunciation in French somehow have a sexual connotation? How broad exactly is the sexual vocabulary of French? I’m gonna put it out there and say that it is disproportionate to the rest of the languages in the world.
And let’s not forget “the face” which is known to non-native French speakers the world over (yes, that is a very generous way of describing my language abilities, thanks a lot for pointing it out). That look of strained confusion on the face of a French person (almost as if they were constipated) as they try to understand you when you speak to them in French. Is it REALLY that difficult?
So why would I chose to persevere in such a hostile environment you may ask? Well, aside from being exclusive, disinterested and conversationally unforgiving, Parisians are also for the most part really interesting, really charming and really funny. They are great story tellers, and exceptionally witty, so conversation is always entertaining, even if you don’t succeed in adding much from your own side. And I would be lying if I said there isn't a certain allure to the thought of being accepted by Parisians when it’s so goddamn tough! (Did I mention I like challenges?)
Am I accepted in Paris? God no! Will I ever be? Probably not. But in the meantime I am just going to continue soaking up their language, laughing at their funny stories, and remaining amused at their peculiarities. And Paris can just get used to it ;)